Cowboy Bebop: The Theme of Masculinity and Femininity

A Play on Names and Meanings

Masculinity and Femininity, and gender as a whole, are a low-key theme in Cowboy Bebop, but the episodes which deal with it most are the two parts of Jupiter Jazz. The sequence announcing part 2 makes quite a few allusions to masculinity and femininity. The episode deals with the absent Julia. The name Julia is the female version of the name Julius which is the Roman name for Jupiter, the ruler of the Roman pantheon of Gods. The episodes revolve around the moons of Jupiter. We see Spike hunting for the woman Julia and running into the drag queen Julius, a male by birth but identifying as a woman. The meanings of names seems important here since the same episodes also reference the meaning of Faye’s name i.e. ‘Fairy’.

The episode is based on Callisto, which is a moon of Jupiter. Titan is another moon of Jupiter. Both Callisto and Titan are names in Greek mythology, which also features the God Hermaphroditus. He is the God of male and female sexuality and possesses organs of both sexes. Hermaphroditus was formed post merger of Hermes and Aphrodite’s son with a nymph who fell in love with him, two halves making up one entity. Gren is the same, with both male and female organs. This theme in the episodes seems to have both occidental and oriental influences, much like most of Bebop.

Yang Qi and Yin Qi (Yin and Yang)

The oriental influence seems to be from the concept of Yang Qi and Yin Qi in Taoism…essentially Yin and Yang, or the composite of masculine and feminine energy. Callisto is a satellite which is very visibly pointed out as being cold but it is inhabited only by men. Cold is a trait associated with Yin, or feminine energy. There is imbalance in both the satellite and its inhabitants with both featuring extremes, and an absence of the other balancing element. Even the drag queens are very visibly male, with five o’ clock shadows and beards. That’s why it seems to be depicted as a crime-infested area housing criminals who are mostly male because generally such acts would be associated with the “masculine” aspect of humanity.

Taoism is a major theme in Bebop with different elements tied to it like Jeet Kune Do, Spike’s ‘whatever happens, happens’ life philosophy, Zuangxhi’s Butterfly Dream as the base of the CB Movie, references to Taoism’s tenet of life as a dream, and an entire episode dedicated to Feng Shui.

In Taoism, it is the combination of the ‘masculine’ energy Yang Qi and the ‘feminine’ energy Yin Qi which birthed the Five elements and the world itself. An individual needs to maintain a balance between these two within themselves to be whole and healthy physically as well as psychologically. These energies also represent other opposites like light and dark, night and day, with both needed to form a whole, neither able to exist without the other. The combination of Yin and Yang is not dependent on how we choose to identify our gender but rather are aspects or traits present in each individual. Someone born male but identifying as a woman or as non-binary would still need to balance their masculine side (logic, dominance etc.) with their feminine side (intuition, emotions etc.) to live a healthy life. It’s a human requirement, common to all, rather than based on the chosen gender of the individual.

In Taoism, rather than correlating to physical sexes, Yin and Yang are more traits which exist within each individual. At the deepest level of our self or soul we are neither male nor female, there is no gender to the pure self. Rather, we are both and neither at the same time. A similar thought process is found in Buddhism and Vedic Hinduism. The soul is formless, traitless, pure consciousness.

I feel to completely understand Bebop as well you need to tap into both of these aspects. If you just look at it from the surface level, practically, logically, you can miss out on a lot.

Hemingway’s Masculinity and Femininity

This is not too different from the Yin and Yang concepts. Hemingway seems to be a huge influence on the storytelling of Bebop in general and his stories deal heavily with the themes of masculinity and World War I, talking mostly about men who have returned from war broken and damaged (just like Gren and Vicious).

Hemingway held fairly misogynistic opinions and his stories glorify the strong, silent, emotionally-controlled man. These characters are more similar to the emotionally-stunted characters of Bebop like Spike, Vicious, and Faye and are contrasted by more intuitive characters with greater “feminine” trails like Gren and Jet.

Imbalanced Characters

During the episode as well, we see characters reflecting this balance or imbalance in their behaviours. Both Gren and Jet operate from a space of being in touch with their ‘feminine’ aspect i.e. emotions and intuition. Gren is an amalgam of both masculine and feminine and, even in the flashbacks, we see him as someone more tuned into his emotions against the contrast of Vicious, who is emotionally suppressed. Gren immediately understands the emotional implications of Faye running away and Jet remains concerned about her well-being despite the damage she has done. He catches on to the fact that she left their zipcrafts undamaged. Jet is very “typically masculine” in his external appearance but he is balanced with his “feminine” side, his emotions and intuition.

Both of these are juxtaposed against Spike and Faye, both imbalanced in their energies, both cut off from and suppressing their emotions, but also overwhelmed by them and deeply hurt. They are well in touch with their “masculine” energies, being able to be forceful, aggressive, but out of touch with their “feminine” sides, unable to feel fully. The episode also ties in with Spike speaking about his “other half” at the end. Yin and Yang are both halves of a whole, they complete each other, each needs the other to survive and to be defined. Night is pointless without day. Both of these characters are imbalanced, they are not whole.

Spike sets off at the beginning of the episode looking for someone he believes he needs, someone who he believes loves him back and can make him feel whole again. He doesn’t find the person and remains unfulfilled, partial. He is so driven by his emotions that he acts very pompously toward Vicious, “flexing his muscles” metaphorically by taunting him through his affiliation with Julia, asking him if he is seeing Julia behind Spike’s back, likely repeating something Vicious may have asked him earlier. Vicious responds back with a taunt of his own and then in the latter parts of the episode, we see Spike less emotional, more thoughtful, evaluating the situation rather than acting on impulses.

There is also the theme of warning. Gren has the imbalance of being too emotional, too trusting. Even before what happens to him, he trusts Vicious, giving in to the emotions he feels for the man rather than using logic to identify who he truly is. He is a soldier, a typically masculine profession, but he is an artist and that is what he remains on the battlefield as well, thinking of playing the tune on his sax once he is back, missing out on the danger right in front of him. He trusts Julia blindly as well, never once questioning her motives or the coincidence of her appearance. We see him do the same with Faye, who could have been equally dangerous to him. His emotions leave him bare, vulnerable.

Spike is in a similar space. He is run by emotions in the beginning, driven by them to abandon his home, fight with someone who cares about him. These emotions have already made him once leave someone else who truly cared for him (Mao) and he is repeating the pattern. It’s required for him to look through the lens of logic and see the destructive nature of the path he is on to make a shift toward balance. He does do that I feel and swallows his pride (something which goes against masculinity) to return back to the ship. Jet greets him with the classic “masculine” reticence, allowing him back on the ship without any explanation or detailed exchange, understanding him wordlessly as only a comrade can.

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Cowboy Bebop: The Pivot of Jupiter Jazz

I’m using the original Japanese subs of Jupiter Jazz here since the dub seems to have made some changes which really give a very different meaning to the scenes. This is a part of the “Alternate Take” universe I ended up exploring.

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I always feel Bebop is a lot like a Japanese Noh play, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Unlike drama in the Western world where everything is told to the audience clearly, Noh players tell their tale through subtle actions and visual representations. The plays are short with limited dialogue and themes are evoked which will be already familiar to the audience to help them understand the narrative. Noh makes as much use of the audience’s imagination and their familiarity with the subject matter which is being evoked as it does of the players on the stage.

For instance, the only “set” ever used in Noh is a single tree in the background. The rest of the scenery you imagine basis what is happening on stage. The mask worn by a particular player tells as much about the scene as what they are doing or saying. The feelings and recalls of familiar aspects invoked in the audience are very important. Bebop similarly shows us stories but the narrative is not told blatantly. It flows in hints and glimpses into the characters’ lives and often leaves it to us to build two and two together. Fleeting shots, individual dialogues which flash by quickly, are critical to the story. It evokes familiar images from the world we know to tell the tale of a world unknown to us. We fill in a lot ourselves. However, being used to the more dramatic and blatant way of storytelling, expecting to be told what is happening rather than catching hints from fleeting shots, can sometimes mean we miss out on things which hold deeper meaning and are telling the story as much as what is being told to us up-front. The idea of this analysis is built on a similar principal.

I’ve re-watched Jupiter Jazz multiple times trying to understand what exactly pivots in those two episodes. In the context of his past, we see a very different Spike in this episode versus who we see during the two finale sessions and this contrast is very deliberately built by the series. In this, he is anguished as all hell to hear Julia’s name and we see him set out on a single-minded search for her the moment he hears ‘Code Name Julia’ which likely may hold some significance for him from their Syndicate days. He brushes Faye very deliberately off as not a priority, gets into a fight with Jet.

We have no further episodes pertaining to Julia or Vicious till we get to the finale and there he meets Julia like he would an old enemy, expressionless and cold, and continues to be that way till her death gets a reaction out of him. The only time we see him react to her truly is when she is shot, which is a natural reaction to have toward the death of someone you knew a long time and cared for deeply. Back on the ship he again talks about her to Jet in the same cold manner. Yes it could be that he is emotionally shut off due to the grief or overflow of emotion she triggers but it all seems oddly disconnected to me. The cold behaviour is shown to go on way too consistently, the facade never breaking, contrasting starkly with how he shows more warmth toward Annie during the same sequences. I’ve written a whole long analysis detailing why I started to feel Julia was actually intended as an antagonist in the series, which covers The Real Folk Blues and a few other aspects in detail but this one goes deep into just Jupiter Jazz.

The more I watch the episode, I feel we are given clues to put together an understanding that he reaches some sort of realization about Julia and Vicious. The intention of the episodes seems to be to build a doubt in the audience’s mind at the same time it begins to build in Spike’s mind. It’s not depicted with the typical widening of eyes and dropping of things we are used to seeing during epiphanies on screen but it’s there running through the sequences in a subtle manner. It’s just that we are not used to stories being told this way. We are used to being confided in, being shown what a character is feeling, rather than being given slight clues, being left to interpret flitting sequences. When asked what was the best part of the show, Yoko Kanno has mentioned its “gaps” and I feel that fits both in the context that you can fill these gaps as you please and you also need to look deeper to understand what is the sub-text hiding beneath gaps based on the information you are given.

His reaction in the finale episodes does not correlate directly to just a suspicion though. He is very definitively detached and cold toward Julia by then, and he is not the kind of character to be this way based on just a hunch. So, perhaps we are to assume that whatever he learns during this session is definitive enough or he receives some further understanding off-screen to confirm his doubts. I like to believe the idea of him reaching a definitive solution after getting more information off-screen since this also loosely ties in with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory style of writing which Bebop can be seen to be influenced by which is based on omission.

Julia is named after the Beatles song of the same name, which is considered a reference to Yoko Ono. I found this choice of name and the parallel with the story of Bebop rather fascinating. Lennon’s obsession with Ono took him away from a lot of important things in his life and she is known to have been self-serving and destructive to him in that relationship. Vicious’ voice coming back during a flashback in Jupiter Jazz to warn Spike to be careful when he is with Julia seems oddly reminiscent of what is known to have happened within the Beatles themselves as the band was not comfortable or too trusting of Lennon’s relationship with Ono. In Lennon’s eyes Ono could do no wrong so he lost others close to him, unable to see her through their eyes, without the tint of hopeless love.

Similarly, Spike was distanced from the life he always knew post his association with Julia, something which she did not even follow him through in. Granted, leaving a crime Syndicate is not a bad thing but we do see later that he left people who genuinely cared about him and needed him behind as well. Annie and Mao’s deaths cement this fact-if he was around, they would not have died. I also find it odd that we are shown Mao had people looking out for Spike, not to pursue him in the same way as deserters are pursued, but because he cared for Spike. It was a very paternal and fond act. So what exactly are we to assume convinced Spike to just run away leaving a respected mentor behind with no one left to challenge Vicious? We never see him abandon people who are depending on him otherwise so I always wonder what we are to think created the communication gaps for him.

We do get to see a demo of this ourselves briefly though. In Jupiter Jazz, we see him get into a full-on fight with Jet, who is like a substitute Mao, for the first time, due to his obsession with Julia. They nearly end up parting ways as well till Spike sees reason and swallows his pride to come back. I also found it interesting to find out that, toward the end of the series, the director wanted both Julia and Vicious drawn with similar shades of dark colors, using a lot of black.

There is also the fact that there are three sequences of Spike “resurfacing to consciousness with flashbacks” throughout the series. The first is during Ballad of Fallen Angels, mostly wordless with ‘Green Bird’ playing across the sequences. The images are fairly benign, nostalgic, and sad. He wakes up on a fond memory of asking Julia to sing for him. The second happens during Jupiter Jazz immediately after Vicious has informed him he is aware Julia was in Blue Crow, which I’ll cover below, and the third happens during the movie which is supposed to be set between Episodes 22 and 23, where we no longer see Julia or anything from the Syndicate at-all. While we assume Spike is still stuck on his past by the end of the series, there was a deliberate absence of Julia nostalgia in his flashback here. Yes the events of the film don’t deal with her but an absence of the past here is significant.

Anyway, in the context of Spike in this episode, it starts off with him hearing ‘Code Name Julia’ which seems to hold meaning for him and we see him go batshit nuts.

Jet points out to him that it’s a common name for women, picking up that this name has some significance for him, but he doesn’t listen and gets into a fight with Jet to leave and find her. We could have been shown Spike’s departure in a more cordial manner and less dramatic context as well, but we are deliberately shown that this name has caused him to lose reason and abandon those closest to him to drive the contrast when the same does not happen at the end of the series.

I always get the feeling the whole phrase ‘Code Name Julia’ may have had significance for him, perhaps something we are to understand was used by Julia as a signature in the past. Since that’s just conjecture, let’s assume it’s because of just hearing the name Julia itself.

We see Spike running around Callisto trying to look for Julia, which changes into looking for Vicious as he gets to know his rival will be here. The flashback sequence in Jupiter Jazz happens as a result of Spike’s interaction with Vicious. Spike shows up to mock Vicious asking if he is seeing Julia behind Spike’s back. This is kind of ridiculous on his part since it reflects his insecurity at not knowing where Julia is or what she is up to. He further goads Vicious telling him he feels sorry for her since her name is being used this way.

Vicious calls him out on having been the one leaving others out of the loop, which may refer back to Spike’s plan of leaving the Syndicate. They get ready to settle their old score but Lin intervenes and Vicious mentions to Spike that Julia was in that town.

Now this could definitely just be Vicious being a stalky creep but the way he says it here comes across as taunting. The whole sequence again gives me a very “Beatles and Yoko Ono” vibe. Spike’s reaction is anger, asking Lin to move out of the way so he can shoot Vicious, a reaction of ego. He has been asserting that Julia is his and taunting Vicious but the other man shares information about her Spike himself does not have. Lin shoots Spike with a tranquilizer and Vicious leaves, not too focused on killing Spike at the moment for some reason. It seems like he has other priorities.

Post this sequence, as Spike is coming back to consciousness in Episode 13, there are a couple of scenes in his flashback which seem additional to the “pure” love story we see during Session 5, first being the below said in Vicious’ voice:

The second is Julia’s voice saying ‘Women are all liars.’ There is another sequence earlier in the same flashback which shows a vial of Red-eye in Julia’s home indicating that Vicious, or even Julia herself, may have been a user.

It is re-established that Julia was someone Vicious also had at-least a physical relationship with at some point and we get to know for the first time about Spike’s eyes and their significance plus the fact that he asked Julia to leave with him but she did not show up.

What Julia informs him later in RFB 2 about being threatened by Vicious seems also to be something he is already aware of since he is shown recalling that bit as well.

The flashback of Vicious warning Spike to be careful when he is with Julia seems to indicate that his relationship with her may have already been over and he was aware of Spike dating her but he does not sound too bitter about it, more concerned for his friend.

The flashback in the finale showing Vicious threatening Julia for betraying him may have been referring to the potential plan of leaving the Syndicate rather than a betrayal in the context of a relationship. Perhaps she continued to be an operative for him.

Even in the sequence where he informs Spike that Julia was in town, he does it as a reaction to Spike going on and on with goading him, stating he is feeling sorry for having Julia’s name being used in a shady deal. Vicious seems to mock Spike that he is aware of Julia’s whereabouts and movements, unlike Spike himself.

It could, of course, mean that Julia is on the run out of love for Spike and Vicious is simply hunting her but that does not correlate to Spike suddenly recalling Vicious’ past warning at this point, or with her disappearance from Spike’s third flashback by the time we get to the film. I take that to mean Spike has some epiphany about her as a result of what happens in these episodes and perhaps gets to know something more off-screen. While we can speculate on what exactly this realisation is since we don’t have all the information for a firm answer, whatever it is seems definitive enough for him to end up this way when he is around her next.

versus how we see him react at the very sound of her name at the beginning of these episodes.

When he opens his eyes from this flashback, we are shown his right eye which sees the present, a further potential indicator of moving from the past to being in the present (the previous flashback in Ballad of Fallen Angels was all about his left eye which sees the past).

Considering what we get to know during the episode about the level of betrayal Vicious himself is capable of meting out, him warning Spike to be careful about someone seems doubly ominous. Spike recalling Julia’s words “women are all liars” at this point also seems significant, perhaps indicative that there is some doubt coming in his mind as well. We see him next cruising over the city figuring out the location for Vicious’ deal through his code.

This code ‘Mangan’ with ‘Ura Dora’ are terms from Riichi Mahjong or Japanese Mahjong. Mangan is a hand which has reached 2000 points and Ura Dora is something which a player who has called Riichi and won the game can do i.e. look underneath the Dora tiles which are otherwise not visible during the game. To understand this better, one can always go and learn Mahjong but basically I always feel this is a hint to the audience to look beyond the apparent, to dig a little deeper than the surface level of what is happening. The deal is taking place in Valhalla Basin, which is an actual crater on Callisto. Valhalla is the hall where dead warriors are taken to rest in Norse mythology, referring back to the theme of dying warriors set by Laughing Bull at the beginning of the episode and foreshadowing Gren’s death.

As the screen loads up, we see Spike flash back to Vicious’ words and he looks pensive again, like thinking over their meaning.

At this time, he receives a call from Jet informing him about Gren and the background to ‘Code Name Julia.’

Once again, we see Spike’s expression become pensive in the exact same way it does after recalling Vicious’ words

If you look at this again with the larger context, I always get the feeling he is beginning to think deeper on his situation. This sequence also drives me to once again believe that we are to understand ‘Code Name Julia’ is likely a signature Julia may have used in previous operations, leading its use by Gren specifically to hold more meaning for Spike. He seems to be pondering over the information he has received, maybe wondering why was Julia in a town where Vicious again happens to be making a deal with an escaped convict, who is likely to have known her while she was there too (Julius the drag queen had asked Spike to go meet Gren for information on Julia).

We see the sequence between Gren and Vicious next where both have come prepared to kill the other and we get to know that it was Julia who helped Gren locate the transmitter within the music box, helping him realise Vicious was the one who betrayed him. Vicious does not seem too phased by this, he just frowns briefly.

Earlier, I always assumed this action of Julia’s was to help Gren in understanding that he had been betrayed by Vicious, an act of helping and protecting him. But we see Gren living in the same situation even after the discovery of the transmitter within the music box meaning that there is either no legal recourse left for him to take to get himself acquitted of his charges now, he is too hurt to bother about that, or the music box being opened up has destroyed whatever evidence he had against Vicious.

This realisation also puts him on a self-destructive path of seeking answers and revenge from Vicious, ultimately leading to his death. The more I think about it now it feels to me like we can draw an inference that Julia shows up on Callisto intentionally, either to destroy the evidence which can possibly implicate Vicious for war crimes in the future, or to close some other loose end with Gren. Of course, it could just be that all of this happens coincidentally and she is actually trying to help Gren but that is again not aligned to the episode deliberately adding a note of deception to her character.

The use of ‘Code Name Julia’ by Gren seems intended as a reference back to the song from the music box and not the actual woman herself since Gren is not likely to be aware Vicious knows Julia has been to Callisto or to want to reveal his connection to her before the deal, believing her to be anti-Vicious.

The deal goes to hell, Lin dies, and a three-way dog fight ensues which results in part of Vicious’ ship getting blown but him escaping and Gren taking a mortal hit. As he lies dying, Spike finds him and Gren requests to be put on the path to Titan.

Spike knew Vicious well so he is bound to know Vicious also served in Titan. He can see how emotionally attached Gren is to the place as well and I feel we can understand he makes the past connection between Gren and Vicious.

As he puts Gren in the shuttle, the dying man finally speaks of having known Julia closely. She has told Gren about Spike’s multi-hued eyes.

Spike asks Gren what she was doing there and he informs Spike she would sit in his club and request the same tune each time. He speaks about her sad smile and we see the shot cut to Spike’s face which bears a sad and painful expression.

Perhaps Spike is familiar with a tune which is a favourite of Julia’s and holds significance to her relationship with Vicious since we have seen Vicious carry a music box earlier playing the tune Gren plays on his sax. Given the war happened a few years ago, this is likely to have been before Spike dated her.

The first few times I watched these episodes years ago as a teen, I always came back feeling wrenched at the idea of Julia wandering the world alone and running into Gren with whom she shares her sorrow and her love for Spike. Gren, who has also been hurt and betrayed by Vicious. I always assumed Vicious just happens to be there on Callisto because called by Gren and never really tried to make the connection between these events or their larger implication on the series. The sequences with Vicious warning Spike and Julia saying women are all liars never really registered, just felt like some fluff content from his past, the kind of dramatic things you say in shows about lovers and criminals.

But even as a kid I was always a bit confused by the fact that, while we are shown Spike has not informed Jet in three years about his connection with the Syndicate, we are shown that Julia opens up to Gren in just a few days about her connections to Vicious, the Syndicate, and Spike as well. If she is truly on the run all alone, her situation is way more desperate that Spike’s so this would be an extremely dangerous thing to do. When Faye meets Gren, she is shown as guarded, never revealing the names of her comrades or any specific details about them or herself despite the fact that at this point she is governed by a raging death wish.

This is not Sex in the City where you sit around and gossip about your love life to your gay bestie. If Julia was truly desperately on the run from Vicious and the Syndicate, she would not trust anyone with this information, least of all someone who knew Vicious before, not knowing how it could get back to the people she is running for her life from. Again conjecture only, but I feel this is the final bit of information which convinces Spike that all is not what it seems with Julia.

Perhaps he makes the connection between the man dying in his arms, his attachment to Titan where Vicious served, his admiration for Julia who has also met him, and has revealed intimate details about her life to Gren, details which could make being on the run very difficult for her. The topic of Spike had no reason to come up with Gren, even if he became her best friend during that one month, since that could really get her killed. And that’s why I feel we are to understand that a reason Julia could have mentioned Spike to Gren would have been to establish solidarity with him, to play on his emotions.

Gren does not seem like the smartest cookie in the box since he cannot figure out the transmitter situation or see Vicious for who he really is. Therefore, again conjecture, but it’s possible to feel Julia worked on the same aspect with him, playing on his emotional side, getting him to lower his guard and present herself as the grieving lover of Vicious’ rival to get him to share his own Vicious story with her, causing him to share about the music box with her. She requests the same tune as the music box from Gren to initiate the connect with him. Maybe we are to assume Spike reaches his definitive conclusions about her basis other information he gathers in the background of the series but I do feel all of this does not add up to him if memories of being warned about Julia begin to surface up in his recollections.

We see Spike tow Gren into space and then return to the Bebop, never looking for Julia again.

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